Why are scientists worried about the new Covid-19 variant?

2021-11-27 12:28:47
Why are scientists worried about the new Covid-19 variant?

South African scientists identified a new version of the coronavirus this week that they say is behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.

It's unclear where the new variant first emerged, but scientists in South Africa first alerted the World Health Organization and it has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Botswana and Hong Kong.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential rise” of cases in the last few days, although experts are still trying to determine if the new variant is actually responsible.

From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to 2,465 on Thursday. Struggling to explain the sudden rise in cases, scientists studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.

In a statement on Friday, the WHO designated it as a “variant of concern,” naming it “omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet.

After convening a group of experts to assess the data, the U.N. health agency said that “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant,” as compared to other variants.

“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa,” the WHO said.

Why are scientists worried about this new variant?

It appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people.

The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying genetic changes, often just die out. Scientists monitor COVID-19 sequences for mutations that could make the disease more transmissible or deadly, but they cannot determine that simply by looking at the virus.

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described omicron as “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen," including potentially worrying changes never before seen all in the same virus.

Scientists know that omicron is genetically distinct from previous variants including the beta and delta variants, but do not know if these genetic changes make it any more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no indication the variant causes more severe disease.

It will likely take weeks to sort out if omicron is more infectious and if vaccines are still effective against it.

Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London said it was “extremely unlikely” that current vaccines wouldn’t work, noting they are effective against numerous other variants.

Even though some of the genetic changes in omicron appear worrying, it's still unclear if they will pose a public health threat. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially alarmed scientists but didn't end up spreading very far.

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